Microtransit service expanding rides to food pantries, health appointments

The microtransit service that provides on-demand van rides in Johnson County is set to begin offering free rides to food pantries, neonatal exams and health care appointments for disadvantaged residents. File photo. 

The microtransit service that provides on-demand van rides in Johnson County will in a few months begin offering free rides to food pantries, neonatal exams and health care appointments for disadvantaged residents.

In an effort that officials described as “cutting edge,” the county will begin four two-year pilot projects designed to get better health outcomes and support for the those in need.

“This is fairly unique,” said Josh Powers, the county’s business liaison. “There are not a lot of examples of local government providing targeted transportation in this way. It’s almost a medical intervention.”

The programs are possible because of grant funding from the Kansas Department of Transportation. The one-time grant of $1 million allows the county to work with health systems and the health department, and it also pays for related software and an electronic rider counter.

The county’s match is $102,728, which was approved by the county commission last week.

The KDOT grant is for innovative projects that enhance access to transit, collaborate with business partners and close the gap between urban and rural transit systems.

Details are still being worked out, but Powers said the programs will rely on advice from the Johnson County Food Policy Council, the health department and its partners  – Olathe Medical Center and Advent Health – to determine who will qualify for the service and how many will be served. Additional private healthcare providers may also become involved if the pilot proves successful and continues long term, he said.

The four projects:

  • Expanding the microtransit service area – One recurring criticism of the existing microtransit area is that it is in the central part of the county and does not reach the county courthouse or social services buildings in Olathe. The new area would stair step south and west to catch those buildings, and would also expand northward to the Wyandotte County line. The idea is to make the service more available to disadvantaged people needing the ride. The expansion could be effective in about a month.
  • Pre-natal services – The county health department, which is already working with teenage and low-income mothers, would help provide this service to its clients. For example, the department might schedule the rides to and from checkups, Powers said.
  • Maintenance healthcare checkups – Healthcare providers would recommend patients who otherwise might have trouble getting transportation to their doctors’ appointments. The idea is to reduce inappropriate emergency room visits, Powers said.
  • Food pantries – The health department and food policy council would help identify potential riders from throughout the county. Hunger undermines health and increases costs, according to the county staff.

The county also must buy some new software that keeps patient information anonymous while tracking whether the programs have the desired outcomes.

Microtransit has been eyed by commissioners as a way to reduce reliance on full-sized buses that run fixed routes. The microtransit vans pick up riders at a location near them and the route to the destination depends on where other passengers are headed.

Even so, Powers said the microtransit is expected to boost ridership on fixed routes because people use it to get to the bus stops. About $194,000 of the total project money will be spent on automatic passenger counters that use infrared sensors to detect where most passengers are entering and exiting the fixed-route buses.